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  • Christian Hain

Berlin Biennale, proudly brought to you by KW Institute for Contemporary Arts

(Berlin.) Berlin Biennale is not your average biennale. Founded in 1998 by the art triumvirate Biesenbach/Obrist/Spector, today it is entirely managed by KW, who uses the generous federal grant to hire some extra spaces and curators.

“BerBie” is essentially just another KW show, and it shows, not least in the pompous by-texts that are equally important as the art, if not more. This year it’s up to American curating collective DIS to rave about “ the virtual as the real”, “nations as brands”, “people as data”, etc. pp. In other words, expect artworks that –supposedly- reflect –supposed- contemporary phenomena. This does not sound much different to your average show either.

The main venue, of course, is KW Institute. The front lawn has been transformed into a jungle, or almost, as a lot of plants are properly arranged in geometrical patches, and it’s not some artist’s private plantation for medical/recreational purposes, but an artwork by Atelier Le Balto (you will find an estimated 1575 bistros named Le Balto in Paris) who aim to draw attention on the coexistence of city and nature. In Berlin, arguably one of the world’s greenest capitals, a place where citizens complain about rising rents but refuse the building of new residences on the grasslands of former airport Tempelhof close to the city centre. Atelier Le Balto don’t self identify as artists but stay humble and happy with the designation “landscape architects”.

A second work outside feels not less “natural”. The photoshopped image of a bikini girl offers a solution to the age-old question, “what are you looking at?” Finally, for once, the eyes are where they ought to be, that is where the male part of humanity has been searching for them since the beginning of time, but where, due to some regrettable accident of evolution, they are not. You are not sure what this has to do with the Biennale’s concept (or Art, even, and especially, if that bikini model is Rihanna)? We neither. If it’s about genetic engineering, we fervently support genetic engineering (it’s not).

Inside KW, you might get the impression this is a video biennale. Other art forms are sparse. If you are employed by a cinema operator, you should visit for professional reasons. It might not be intended, but Berlin Biennale indeed tackles a contemporary phenomenon: Nobody goes to a cinema anymore, and multiplexes are the empty memorials of a dying industry. At KW, you will find the alternative modes of presentation that are so desperately needed today. Take Cecil Evans for example who ordered the curators to flood the central hall, KW’s largest room, and leave only a dry platform for visitors to sit down in front of the screen (quite reminiscent of Manifesta’s Pavilion of Reflections; or a Venetian drive-in cinema). And why? Because he can.

The film itself, a mixture of CGI and true(er) images, shows no apparent ties to the installation. But its appeal is considerably heightened by a signpost “Enter at your own risk”, and somebody controlling how many patrons take the “risk” at any given time. - Side note: The Biennale staff wears T-Shirts with “Personal” written upon. They’d need to be Olympic swimmers for all letters to be readable; as it is, it only spells “ersona” leaving people confused about the meaning.

A backroom has the water changed for sand, or cat litter. Another ambiance for the moviegoer, and equally unrelated to what’s happening on screen! Josh Kline’s Crying Games (2015) shown here at first sight appears like Bas Jan Adder revisited. We see an fat white man who looks strangely familiar, loudly self loathing: “I’m so sorry”. From time to time, the image flickers, and the face changes from glasses to no glasses. Finally you get it. This is not about contemporary phenomena, not about “personalities” forced to apologetic self criticism in medial show trials for viral-going non-pc slips, and no one ever daring to say “F*@k the money, tamensi movetur”. No, a faceswap app transforms actors into war criminals of the Bush administration, that first chap was Cheney, follow Mrs Rice and Dubya himself. Don’t forget the past, fine, but is this really relevant today (even in the advent of Trump)?

Next. Alexa Karolinski and Ingo Neumann portray two aging hippies, preaching what preached every self respecting guru of the 1970s (or so we imagine) in films called Army of Love and Army of Love Basics. We really don’t mind thrice divorced office workers joining Tantra groups to seek enlightening, and depth, in the other, mmkay? Houellebecq wrote about that. And only days ago, in the middle of Berlin, we fell upon a parade of the last (must be) European Hare Krishna devotees. Their songs have not changed, we almost joined in, “Hare Hare, ...”, and were slightly disappointed that the proffered sweets did not contain any psychoactive substances (not that we noticed). Karolinski/Neumann stand to their non-contemporaneous love and peace spirituality that isprobably deeply offensive to someone in the age of neoprudent feminism.

One of the few non-video works in the show is an installation of Alexandra Pirici’s. She likes Tino Sehgal’s Welcome to this Situation, a lot. And Tron. In a dark room five actors in black diver suits with attached light bulbs keep blinking, perform some gymnastics, and talk. They ask patrons for a keyword and start on a discussion among themselves. A small screen in a corner displays more keywords and phrases describing actual events. It’s interesting, no really it is! Though it might be even better if it were truly participative, the public could not be less inspired than these actors. The accompanying text tells about algorithms, internet trends, and actors recreating internet images that have been selected by website visitors. You’d never know. (We witnessed a discussion on “love” because somebody in the audience suggested it; there were no computers involved.)

Up to the first floor. Adrian Piper’s tombstone formed cut-out in the wall allows a glimpse into KW’s guts, at cables and Plexiglas. A door to the side exposed even more litter and dirt, but this was left open unintentionally. On the 2nd floor, we liked the intriguing works of Anne de Vries. First an installation, a toy festival ground with action figures in front of a stage on which an image is projected Tony Oursler style. The large video screen next to that playground shows a mass event, a laser show in front of a gigantic idol and a DJ table while cell phones flash incessantly. Is this an obscure cult, a fascist gathering? No, only a rave (sorry, you don’t say “rave” anymore, since techno became "EDM". Marketing baby, if the novelty wears off, give it a new name). Anne de Vries shows reality in a strangely purified way. And the work is doubled as patrons lift their own phones, filming, photographing the screen.

Some paintings later, a Chinese room has Wu Tsang - not Tang! - obsessed with Kung Fu in photos, objects, and, unavoidably, film: Chinese rage past and present. That could be Kill Bill 3 playing on screen, alas it’s not. There is some narration on historic Chinese personalities involved.

Finally, you find Camille Henrot answering emails and a “Howdy” painted on a looked door on KW’s top floor. That’s Adrian Piper again. In the staircase a hand sanitizer dispenser on the one hand is art, on the other welcomed by those who used the unisex restroom-turned-installation before noticing the water’s cut off.

Outside again, the door of the adjoining building was open, so we followed a group of visitors inside and up too many stairs. There was nothing, not even a “Howdy”.

KW is the Biennale’s heart, and the largest show by far. We’ve mentioned curating DIS ( da biennale), and no disrespect, but the one space that feels distinctively American is Akademie der Künste vis-à-vis touristic hotspot Brandenburg Gate. Videos here all feature that typical ecstatic overacting every American (artist) seems to be born with. The visuals are quite the same, too. With crazy voices screaming from made up mouths, sooo cool, sooo New York, so parodying ad style; dude, that’s rad. You might think it annoying.

Nobody knows exactly what Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts) is good for. It’s not an art school, and it’s not a museum or an exhibition space either. From time to time, there are public events, and they seem proud of their archives. The institution resides right next to 5-star Adlon hotel (you can catch a glimpse through an open window here and there), and the art gets lost in the immense staircase that’s reserved for Berlin Biennale. More often than not, you run into signposts, “No exhibition beyond this point”. Non video works comprise sculptures and photos/paintings on panels by Anna Uddenberg and an installation by Australian collective Centre for Style (with faux Giacometti sculptures, clothes and random objects shattered about; all seen before, a hundred times and more). The multi-coloured gym equipment on a terrace might or might not belong to the show – is it meant for the academy’s staff to use, when they take a break from whatever it is that they are doing all day?

A work by Timur Si Qin (suddenly, he’s everywhere!) involves fake and true flowers and a screen visitors can use for a filmed selfie. It references Buddhist ideas and probably Nam June Paik. Aaaadriaaaaan Piper sends another “Howdy”, this time on the bottom of a stairs, and Deborah Delmar takes Warhol’s tomato soup to a next level. The artist created a drink called, and coloured, Mint which is now presented in all advertising glory and mint condition. Underlying topics range from health to M.I.N.T. group of states and global food trade.

Works at Akademie get quite political, the most radical being New Ealam by Christopher Kulendran Thomas, on Sri Lankan Marxists and a property less community sold in capitalist commercials. The film is playing on one telly and three ipads. But is the closed off fashion shop in Akademie’s entrance hall an installation or for real? As far as we could distinguish through the glass, it offers a white tee in six different cuts, contact lenses and more.

Two more venues to go (or three in fact, but we passed on the boat trip with performance). Feuerle Collection belongs to one more German collector, Mrs Desiré Feuerle. Located at Hallesches Ufer 70, in south central Berlin, close to a museum of science and technology – that’s why there’s an actual airplane hanging from a building –, it is not easy to find. First time we walked right past it, and discovered Christian Boros’ ad agency - one day, we’ll have to talk about the Polish Saatchi (of fifteen years ago), about whom dealers whisper, he reigns over the Berlin market, it's he alone who decides who lands an exhibition, gets a catalogue printed and much needed media coverage, and who, finally, sells. When we arrived at a municipal office (“Bezirksamt”) obviously in war with the parks and gardens department – the jungle blocking the pavement is much more impenetrable than the one at KW -, we turned around. At this point, some would think Feuerle Collection an imaginary museum, an installation, and people looking for it parts of a performance; but not so we. Going back we discovered a hidden concrete structure, and a hardly readable house number on the worn off wall. Inside, it’s a bunker, the first thing to see a plaque listing Feuerle Collection’s brand ambassadors - eminent artists and fellow collectors. A second plaque around the corner explains the brand identity. There’s also art: A model railway that we did not dare to use, even with the controller lying on top a car. Together with unoriginal photos, it’s a work of Josephine Pryde. Much better Yngve Holen’s objects throwing coloured shadows on the wall. Our association “eyes” proved not entirely wrong: The design merges anti evil eye talismans and airplane windows. Will magic help to survive the flight, after being scanned thoroughly? How much archaic ritualism is still awake in all of us? You can buy miniaturised versions at the counter.

Sculpture collages of Chinese Guan Xiao featuring tyres and rims are not bad either. Korpys/Löffler’s video is screened off by supposedly sound proof panels, but you still hear it everywhere around. What looks like bullet holes in one of the bunker’s columns suits the images of police force in urban surroundings.

We think we will come back one day to see the permanent collection, presented downstairs and not included in Biennale’s entry fare.

And finally, ESMT, the "European School of Management and Technology".

They too honour their brand ambassadors on a plaque in the entrance hall, with (slightly) different names. A TV displays stock prices. In the back the first artworks, devilish horns rising from flames We first mistook it for an invitation to Wacken. Upstairs (“please show your tickets on first floor”) one more of these paintings on metal plates is accompanied by an explanation, they are supposed to point at Neolithic societies at the root of capitalism. Okay...

The stained glass windows tell of a socialist past, the building once housed the GDR’s State Council. ESMT’s inclusion in the Biennale creates a win-win-situation, the school gets publicity by CSR, and art may say, “see, we’re open to dialogue, we don’t demonize them!”

Neither will change, or only listen to the other. Well, back to the exhibition. With Blockchain Future States, Simon Denny and Linda Kantchev installed a micro trade fair for authentic start ups, and add a postage stamp to the firms’ marketing instruments. GCC’s installation consists of a running track formed like a teardrop with a veiled woman and a boy occupying the central isle. We learn, her hands perform an esoteric gesture while a sound recording tells of Arabian self esteem and the region’s glorious future.

Downstairs again, we admired the catalogues on display, “Cost traps in innovative business models” with a (not Lacoste!) croc on the cover, and more. Then left.

Berlin Biennale makes you get around the city, potentially catching some Pokémons on the way. It’s hard to see anything more in it than an extended KW show. But it’s really nice for what it is.

Berlin Biennale, 4 June-18 September 2016, Berlin(!)

World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism



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